Hello - The Islanders is my new novel, and here's a snippet from the beginning of the book, so you can read it and see if it's for you.
by F.J. Campbell
Island (ˈaɪlənd), n.
1. A mass of land that is surrounded by water and is smaller than a continent.
2. Something resembling this: a traffic island.
3. Anatomy: a part, structure or group of cells distinct in constitution from its immediate surroundings.
4. A boarding school in the countryside of south-west England that’s so remote and cut off on all sides, its pupils have nicknamed it The Island.
Early morning, the earlier the better, was Milo’s favourite time of day by far. When he was walking alone to school he was something close to happy, despite everything. He blinked in the autumn sunshine as he stepped out of the woods, his eyes adjusting to the view that he knew so well. No need to stop and take it in; he’d seen it a thousand times before. His feet pounded the tarmac as he strode on, down the hill past the sports hall and the boarding houses towards school.
He was especially glad to be early that day, because it meant he saw her first. These things were crucial to his best mate Guy: Milo never would’ve heard the end of it, if Guy had seen her first. It was a matter of minutes, seconds even. If he’d stopped to tie his shoelaces or had an extra piece of toast for breakfast, it would have been a different story.
A car swooshed around the circle of grass in front of the main school building and he only caught a glimpse of the girl in the passenger seat, but it was enough, that glimpse, to make him stop and look again. It parked facing away from him. Inside the car he saw her arm reach up to the mirror, into which she stared for a longer time than necessary for someone so pretty. It was funny to see her staring like that, completely still, lost in herself. She didn’t even fiddle with her hair or put on make-up or anything. Milo thought he saw her eyes in the mirror and he looked away quickly. Had she seen him watching her? He turned to go, but heard the car door open and glanced back again.
Her legs unfolded, like in a film, and they were long and slim and he thought he might be dreaming them. Miniskirt, shabby red coat, dark, shiny hair falling over her shoulders, clear, pale skin, a smile on her red lips. She was breathtaking. Milo actually stopped breathing. He didn’t know that was a thing that happened. Admittedly, his basis for comparison was limited, but she had to be the most beautiful girl in the history of the world. Easily.
Next thing he knew, the car had driven away and she was at the main entrance, trying the big iron handles on the double doors.
‘Those doors aren’t usually open. Well, sometimes they are. But not… umm… today.’ Nice one, Milo. Very slick.
She turned and glared at him. For a long time. Her perfect mouth curled up, disbelief in her eyes. Disbelief at how anyone could be this much of a pathetic loser. ‘Any chance you’re going to tell me which doors areopen? Before I die of boredom.’
Her voice nearly brought him to his knees. It curled around his brain, squeezing any last vestige of sense out of him. It was all he could do to point in the vague direction of the side door. She gave him one more frightening glare and flounced away, leaving him standing alone.
That’s where Guy found him a few moments later.
‘Hey, big man, I’ve just met the girl of my dreams. Well, when I say, “met”, I mean I saw her. In the corridor. What a babe.’ Guy waved a hand in front of Milo’s dazed face and then stopped. ‘Oh, I know what this is. You saw her first. Didn’t you?’
Milo nodded twice.
‘That is just my bastard luck. Who is she? What did she say to you? I can’t believe you saw her before I did. I think I might love her.’
But Milo pulled himself together enough to remember how she’d stared at her reflection and that self-satisfied smile, and said, ‘Not quite as much as she loves herself.’
Milo slid into a seat at the back of the room, just as the headmaster started talking. He counted the other scholarship candidates: three boys, five girls. Including the girl with the red coat. Of course. He tried not to stare at her too much, in case she could feel it through the back of her head. Mr Toms’ usual speech about the school drifted over him. He’d heard it before.
‘Weatherbury Hall… fantastic opportunities… develop talent… give something back to the school… utmost dedication… Springer’s Scholarship.’
That made Milo switch back on.
‘Applicants for this scholarship must have been born and brought up in Wessex and will have to display excellence in a number of areas: academia, sport, art, drama or music. They will need to be motivated and enthusiastic. They will need to be good team members and leaders. This award is worth one hundred per cent of the sixth-form fees.’
That was the one for Milo; the only way he could stay at The Island after fifth form. His dad couldn’t afford the fees, even with his staff reduction, and Milo didn’t want to think about what he’d do if he had to leave. He’d been living here for all of his almost seventeen years, and in the next three days it would all be on the line. His shoulders tightened and a sensation spread through his stomach, fear mixed with doubt. No. Forget my nerves.Forget the girl. He shifted in his seat and planted his feet firmly on the ground, willing himself to concentrate.
After the speech, Milo returned to normal lessons while the other candidates had the school tour. He’d been excused due to the fact that he knew the place like the back of his hand. Still, he would’ve gladly gone too, if it meant he could have spoken to the girl again. In double maths he had to stop himself daydreaming about walking around the school grounds with her, showing her the woods, the river, the sports fields. He would have shown her all the places that meant something to him – the hill with the view of the sea where he’d had picnics with his mum, where his dad had taught him how to ride a bike, the rugby pitches, his cottage, the adjacent farmland his grandparents used to own. She would love it all as much as he did – how could she not?
The rest of the day was exams and interviews, one after another. By the evening, he was done in and ready to go home to the quiet cottage, to another silent evening with his dad. It was dark and way past curfew when he hurried up the hill towards the woods. The road was deserted and silent, except for the sound of muted voices and music coming from the boarding houses.
A sash window at the side of Norcombe House opened and a girl climbed out and sprang to the ground. Milo drew back into the shadows out of sight. He was pretty sure it was Olivia Rose’s room, but it wasn’t Livvy who had climbed out: this girl was taller than Livvy, athletic and graceful. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, underneath which was a woollen hat. To a whisper from inside the room, the girl outside replied, ‘Trust me, I don’t need it.’
The window was closed from the inside and she turned from it and ran in the opposite direction from where Milo was standing, towards the sports hall. Now would have been a good time to forget all this, go home and get some rest. Milo wasn’t normally very adept at breaking rules and nobody could ever call him stealthy. And yet, he was curious; there were no teachers about and he told himself it was on his way home anyway. So he followed her.
Around Norcombe House, to the sports-hall doors. But she was nowhere to be seen. The doors were normally locked at this time of night (Milo knew full well, since his dad did the evening lock-up), but he tried one of them anyway and it opened. Huh.The surprise made him draw back and at this point, sense won over curiosity and he decided to go home. As he looked one last time through the doors, he saw the girl’s hat lying on the foyer floor. Before he knew it, he’d pushed open the door, grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket. Right, that’s it – out of here. A quick look over his shoulder – still no teachers – and he skirted around the side of the swimming pool building towards the woods and home.
He heard a faint splash as he passed under a high window and stopped in his tracks. It had to be her. There was a steep grass bank, the top of which was level with the window, and he scrambled up it, but what he saw made him wish he hadn’t.
The girl was swimming in the water.
There were no lights on in the pool.
She was far away.
It was clear to Milo that she had no clothes on.
He had never seen a naked girl before. Her skin shimmered as she moved through the water and her long, dark hair fanned out behind her. That skin, that hair, he knew who she was – the girl in the red coat from that morning, except now she wasn’t wearing her red coat. Milo couldn’t help himself; he laughed out loud. Afraid that she’d heard him, he ducked and slid to the bottom of the bank. He ran, crashing and slipping through the dark woods, the picture of her burnt onto his eyes. All the way home, out of the school gates, along the overgrown path to the cottage. He opened the door, called to his dad, ‘I’m home, I’m going to bed’, ran two stairs at a time up to his room and collapsed onto his bed. He had to get a good night’s sleep.
After one of the worst night’s sleeps of his life, he woke with his alarm. He showered before his dad had even woken up and left a note to say he’d have breakfast at school. Milo thought it would probably be a relief for his dad to avoid the strained atmosphere between them, for once.
On the way to school, Milo was buzzing. If he saw her again, he might manage to say something less unbelievably boring – or at the very least a full sentence in coherent English. They were after all doing the same scholarship exams, so it wasn’t beyond the realms of imagination that they might be on the same intellectual level. He wasn’t thick, although he looked it – as Guy constantly reminded him – and he was a year older and about a head bigger than all the other fifth-formers, so that didn’t help. Farmer West, they called him, on account of his size and strength, the former occupation of his grandparents and the total lack of wit and originality of the typical boy at his school.
He didn’t mind, though: he wasn’t proud. He’d failed his GCSEs in the summer, might as well not have turned up, but the school had given him another chance, and that wasn’t something they did very often. ‘Exceptional circumstances’, they’d called it. He had gritted his teeth and sworn never to mess up like that again, no matter what happened.
There was an ache he had, when he thought about his mum, and he became very good at swallowing it, ignoring it. Milo never spoke about her, not even to his dad. Especially not to his dad. Every day, he took his place in class, he spoke when spoken to, he kept his head down. It worked, because it had to. It wasn’t like anyone noticed much of a difference in him anyway: he was hardly the world’s greatest talker, hardly the coolest kid in school. He was just the boy from The Island with no idea about music or clubs or parties.
But this girl, she wouldn’t care that he wasn’t cool. He would talk to her. Impress her. He could do that. There’s always a first time for everything. Hello, yes, nice to meet you, my name’s Milo West, and you are…?
Jesus, I sound like such a plank. He started to panic as he left the woods. He felt the hat in his pocket and for the life of him couldn’t remember how it had got there. As he turned the corner past the sports hall, there she was, alone; a miracle if ever he saw one.
‘I found a hat,’ he said, without any other greeting. Way to go, Milo.
‘You, again. That’s my hat.’ She reached out her hand towards it, her hand was right there, next to his, and then she paused. ‘Wait. Where did you find it?’
‘In the sports-hall foyer, last night.’ He registered, too late, the surprise on her face.
She looked at him through narrowed eyes. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Milo. West.’ He took his eyes off her face. Oh God, I hope she doesn’t think I’m a pervert.
‘Well, Milo West, what are you, some kind of pervert?’
‘No, I…’ He was looking at his dirty old boots; the laces were undone. He couldn’t meet her eyes. ‘I just wanted to…’ He glanced up finally and saw that she had walked away from him. He still didn’t know her name.
‘Elizabeth Atkinson,’ Guy whispered, triumphant but red-faced, glasses askew, shirt untucked, slamming his books down on the table next to Milo in the library and earning a hard stare from the teacher on duty. ‘She’s called Elizabeth Atkinson.’ He sat down and grinned from ear to ear.
‘Mmm? What’s that? Who?’
‘The girl, big man, the girl. Keep up, will you?’
‘Oh, right.’ Milo sighed and shrugged. ‘You mean the one that’s been ignoring me all day?’ Milo had decided not to tell Guy about the swimming pool, since he’d been gutted enough that Milo had seen her first, let alone seen her nakedfirst. And Elizabeth had blanked him at breakfast and again at lunch, but he couldn’t blame her for that – he’d not only been spying on her, which made him weird, but he’d also admitted to doing it, which made him gormless. All things considered, he would’ve thought less of her if she hadtaken any notice of him.
‘That’s the one. Now, listen, there’s no time to lose. You can’t get close to her with all these other soppy wazzocks hanging around her. You’ve got to get her alone. What’s your plan?’
‘Yes, haven’t you noticed? “Elizabeth, can I carry your bag for you? Elizabeth, can we sit together at lunch? Elizabeth, can I stare at your tits a bit more?” So, you’ve got to formulate a plan. You can’t mess this up, or you will profoundly regret it for the rest of your long, unhappy and lonely life.’
Milo shook his head wordlessly and turned back to his book.
That evening, after the second day of exams and sneaking furtive looks at Elizabeth Atkinson, Milo arrived home. He’d lost his key. He had forgotten to eat lunch, had a maths exam and the headmaster’s interview the following day, and now this. Where the hell was his dad?
He stomped round to the back of the cottage with a ladder, aiming to climb up to the bathroom window, which had a loose latch he thought he might be able to wrench open. As he reached up to the window, he heard a noise in the woods. His foot slipped off the top rung, plunging into only air, his other knee buckled and the ladder seemed to fall away from him. He made a desperate grab at it, grazing his hand against the rough wood, knocked his head on something hard and everything went black.
Milo opened his eyes and was sure he was still dreaming. The girl, Elizabeth, was right there, right above him, almost smiling as she peered down at him. He closed his eyes again. If this was a dream, he didn’t want it to end. But she wasn’t having any of that.
‘Milo? Wake up. Are you OK? Wake up, would you? Say something, or I’ll have to call an ambulance.’
‘Whatsappening is that you’ve fallen off a ladder, you brain donor. You could have broken your neck. What are you doing here anyway – are you trying to do over this house?’
‘Ah, I can help you there, Sleeping Beauty. I found this on the path in the woods.’ She held up the key in front of her, and when he reached out towards her hand, she dropped it into his. He closed his fingers around the warm metal. He didn’t want to move again; he was so comfortable, and it occurred to him that, for the very first time ever, she wasn’t angry with him. That was worth falling off a ladder for.
He watched her pull out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her red coat. She tilted the pack towards him, but he shook his head.
‘Good boy. They’ll kill you. If you don’t manage it yourself first.’ She put one in her mouth – lucky, lucky cigarette– lit it and stayed next to him on the mossy grass, looking around her as she smoked. Taking a last drag, stubbing it out on the ground, she helped him sit up and peered at him.
‘Are you sure you’re going to be OK? You’re not bleeding, but you’ve got an impressive lump on your head. You should see a doctor.’
He raised his hand to his head and felt the lump, trying not to wince. ‘I’ll be fine. Thanks to you.’
‘Yes, well, it’s quite all right. It’s not like I saved your life or anything. Did you say you live here?’
‘Uh-huh. Would you… would you like to come in? For a cup of tea?’
She paused, looked at the cottage and then at him again. ‘You know what, another time maybe. I should get back to school.’
‘What if I black out again?’
‘Don’t milk it.’
He sort of laughed, but because he was so nervous, it came out more like a cough. ‘Sorry. Thanks. Umm… see you tomorrow?’
‘Yes, no doubt you will.’ She stood up, brushed off her coat, and walked backwards to the cottage gate. ‘If the last few days are anything to go by.’
Milo wondered if he could’ve played that better. She might have been flirting with him, just a bit, but he wasn’t sure. He racked his brains about what every word and look had meant. She’d called him Sleeping Beauty. But also a brain donor. What he could remember most was a blurry feeling of being warm and close to her. He was no good at this. It was making his head ache. Or maybe that was the lump.
Anyway, she’d only be at school for one more day, and after that, if either of them didn’t get a scholarship, they’d never see each other again. He had one day, then.
First up on Friday he had the interview with Mr Toms, the headmaster. Candidates were supposed to talk about their future ambitions: Milo wanted to discuss applying to Bristol University to study veterinary science. But Mr Toms was a big rugby fan, so he rushed through that and all the other questions and they talked about rugby for the rest of the time. Mr Toms told Milo that Mr Shepherd, the coach, would appoint him 1st XV captain for next year, but to keep it quiet until the summer announcement. He praised Milo’s leadership qualities, and said he’d been impressed with how he’d coped with school this year. Actually, when Milo shook hands at the end of the interview, he had the feeling that Mr Toms had done most of the talking. Is that a good sign? Not sure.
As he was leaving, Mr Toms asked him to hand out tickets to the fifth-form party that night. And there he had it – one more chance to speak to Elizabeth alone. He distributed the tickets in the different houses, leaving Norcombe House until last. Rugby practice started in twenty minutes, so he changed into his kit and hoped it would impress her, show her that he could do something other than spy on her and fall off ladders. Clutching the tickets in his hot hand, rehearsing what he would say, he walked up the hill to Norcombe House after lunch, hoping she’d be in Livvy’s room.
She wasn’t, but Livvy was. She was lying on her bed, reading a letter on a large piece of paper, each line of which was written in a different coloured pen. The girls’ bedrooms in the school boarding houses were very similar to the boys’ – big enough for two beds, two desks and a wardrobe to share. Livvy had decorated hers with African printed scarves and photos of herself and her friends on beaches and ski slopes, and a large poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed. Milo liked Livvy, she was always friendly to him; mind you, she was friendly to everyone. She was that girl – every school has one – who knows everyone, and also what their parents do, especially the famous and the rich ones. Milo couldn’t remember stuff like that and wasn’t interested in it anyway, and despite her friendliness, he wouldn’t have trusted her to keep a secret – had he been interesting enough to have one.
When he walked into her room, she put down the letter and swung her legs over the side of the bed, turning to face him. He handed the tickets to her and sat down on her desk chair. He took a deep breath. She smiled at him, a knowing smile, and raised an eyebrow, waiting. Milo looked around the room and his eyes fastened on the other bed. He looked away again.
‘I just wanted to ask you, you know, do you—?’
‘About Beth Atkinson? What do you want to know? She’s fifteen, lives in Melchester with her aunt, likes films and books, very brainy, a virgin—’
‘Whoa. Stop. No, nothing like that. I just wanted to know… if anyone has asked her to the party yet. Do you know if she’s going with anyone?’
‘Ah, OK, that. I don’t know if she’s decided yet, but Nate asked her, also Sam, and Golo, and Matt—’
‘Big Matt or Little Matt?’
‘Both. But I don’t know who she said yes to yet. Or she might just be going alone, with me, you know.’
He stood up to go, regretting that he’d said anything to Livvy. It’d be round the school before the day was out and probably she and Elizabeth would have a good laugh about him. He muttered something about rugby and turned to the door. But as he opened it, there stood Elizabeth.
‘Hi. How’s your head?’
‘Fine. Thanks. Thanks again.’
‘You don’t have to keep saying thank you.’
‘Oh, right. OK.’
She gave him a questioning look. ‘Did you come to see me?’
‘What? Oh, yes – I mean no. Doesn’t matter. Got to go. Pugby ractice. Rugby. Um. Thanks. Sorry.’
She moved sideways, but stayed in the doorway so that when he stepped past her, no part of him touched her, but every part of him almost did. He couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. Down the steep path, through the trees towards the rugby pitches, and only one thought: Elizabeth. At least now he knew he had zero chance with her. She had the pick of the boys at school – why would she choose him?
Then he heard footsteps behind him. A small hand slapped him on the shoulder and he stopped. Elizabeth was panting, waving her hand while she caught her breath. She rushed out the words.
‘I’ve just heard from Livvy you came to ask me to some party or other and she thought it was a great joke because she told you loads of boys had already asked me. It’s not true. Nobody’s asked me.’ She stopped and the colour rose in her cheeks. Was it from running after him, or from embarrassment? He wondered. And waited.
‘It was a bit harsh of her. I don’t know why she did it, just to tease you I think, because you… I mean… Well.’ She shrugged.
Milo blushed and grinned at her. He didn’t know why he grinned, but perhaps he did stand a chance after all. According to Guy, Milo looked like a village idiot when he smiled; his mouth was too wide and his eyes crinkled up and his dimples took over everything. Guy’s theory was that boys should never smile at girls; they prefer the brooding bastard look anyway. But Milo couldn’t help it – that was the effect she had on him. He looked in her eyes and she was smiling right back at him.
‘So… if nobody else has asked you, would you, umm, like to go with me?’
The smile disappeared.
‘Oh. Um. Well, I didn’t mean that I want to go with you; I only meant to tell you that Livvy was teasing you. I’m not even going to the party, you see. I don’t… it’s not really my thing to go to parties with boys. I think you got the wrong idea.’
OK, so now he was really confused. Livvy’s stupid joke was one thing, but now Elizabeth was saying that she’d rather not go to the party at all than with him. Huh, he thought, she can’t stand me. Or perhaps this was part of the joke. Perhaps she would go back to her room and the two of them would snigger over it all. But that didn’t seem right; they wouldn’t be that cruel. Would they? There was no getting round it: Milo West knew nothing whatsoever about girls. He sat down on a tree stump next to the path and, before he knew what he was doing, he took her hand and pulled her down to sit next to him. Her hand was small and felt cool and smooth next to his.
He took a deep breath and rushed out the words before he could change his mind. ‘I don’t care about the party and whatever Livvy said. I just… ever since I saw you I can’t stop thinking about you. I mean, ever since I saw you on Wednesday morning, not in the pool, you know… sorry. I know I’m not good enough for you, but—’
She wriggled her hand out of his and interrupted, but her voice was kind.
‘Honestly, you don’t even know anything about me and if you did, you wouldn’t be saying all this stuff. It’s you who’s too good for me. Anyway, I’m not interested in boyfriends and that sort of thing. You’ve got to stop all this now, it’s absurd.’
She was so close to him and he could see her eyes, dark and clear. Her body was rigid, her hands clenched in white fists. She edged away from him.
‘OK,’ he answered dully. ‘I understand. It won’t happen again.’
And that was the last time he saw her before everything fell apart.
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.